Maps on the Move

#cartography #mapping #mobility #translocalisation #motional_turn

15 March 2023


In an age determined by global mobility and multilocality, everyday life and livelihoods are increasingly determined by the possibility, and impossibility, of being on the move. Translocal people, goods, as well as ideas, are transforming urban areas, landscapes and territories. In order to facilitate analysis and visualisation of a vectorised space-time, the approaches of mapping need to be adjusted. What could we learn from the maps of people-on-the-move?

by Elisa T. Bertuzzo [1]

The hypothesis of translocalisation

Years ago, while observing how people continued to arrive, stay and work in Dhaka for a few months and then depart again, I became interested in what I later tried to conceptualise through the notion of translocalisation. The observations shared in this paper emerged from different phases of fieldwork carried out between 2007 and 2015 in Bangladesh and India and I will use them to elaborate on the increasing significance of mobility and multilocality, paralleled by the loss of stable and permanent livelihoods, for inhabitants of both cities and the countryside all over the world. This development, discussed by many other authors in countries both north and south of the Equator, [2] creates the necessity to revise and adapt the empirical approaches through which we investigate the production of space in everyday life. Anthropologists, sociologists and migration studies scholars are already working towards this, by carrying out multi-sited ethnographies (Marcus 1995), for example, or analysing the ‘immobilities’—infrastructures, local networks, family structures, those involved in reproductive work, etc.—which make mobility possible in the first place (Sheller/Urry 2006). In parallel, geographers, urban planners and economists have been publishing studies, visualisations and simulations of everyday movement on various scales (Scheppe 2009). My aim here is to make these different approaches converge by posing the question: How can mapping, in the contemporary context of augmented movement, help discover and analyse the transformations of people’s everyday life and their representations of space-time?

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I will point out immediately that, should the hypothesis of translocalisation prove to be correct, we would need to review much more than just the tools of our empirical investigations, for an entire epistemology of the production of space might be at stake. [3] In spite of the increasing scholarly interest in circular, permanent, temporary, as well as seasonal forms of migration, documented by a range of publications, we are only just beginning to develop conceptualisations which link the mere empirical fact—that people, as well as goods, money, investments and information are more and more on the move—to its deeper theoretical implications.

The disciplines of urban studies and urban planning, for example, both continue to regard settlement and being settled as ‘normal’, and movement as the exception. The philosopher Thomas Nail has challenged this stance with the argument that ‘[t]o view migration and movement as lack is … to conceal the conditions of expulsion required by social expansion. It is to treat migration as an “unfortunate phenomenon” rather than the structural necessity of the historical conditions of social reproduction. In other words, to understand migration and movement as lack is to accept the banality of social dispossession’ (Nail 2015: 12).

For Nail, ‘[t]he migrant only appears to have “permanently” settled from the perspective of [their] extensive movement between presumed static social points (sites, states, regions, etc.). However, from the perspective of [their] intensive movement, a migrant is continually changing the supposedly static points from which [they] departed or to which [they] arrives. … In this sense, migration is always circulatory’ (Nail 2015: 30). Importantly, migration ought to be understood as a circulatory process not simply because the migrant, by maintaining relationships at home as well as in their new locations, connects places of ‘departure’ and ‘arrival’. Rather, migration-circulation is tightly linked with the capitalist logic of expansion by expulsion, which constantly compels people to search for acceptable lives elsewhere. To speak of ‘expulsions’, as does Saskia Sassen in the eponymous book (2014) quoted by Nail, is not an exaggeration: it reflects the crude experience of a historically unprecedented number of people moving all over the world because jobs and means of production—if not the foundations of survival (land, water) tout court—have been taken away. [4]

A clear component and backdrop of translocation is, then, exhaustion: exhaustion of the nature and its reproductive capacities, especially of the soil, but also of labour and the labour market. Extreme levels of extraction, overcultivation, pollution and, of course, unabated privatisations and enclosures—that is, the typical features of the ‘Capitalocene’ (Moore 2016)—have brought the planet to the verge of an irreparable ecological crisis.

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Map showing the effect of river erosion correlated with the Farakka Barrage, a dam built by the Indian government in 1961–1975 close by the India and Bangladesh border. © Ganga Bhangan Protirodh Action Nagorik Committee, Rajmahal.
Till today, the victims of river erosion have little alternative but to move to the city or to resettle on char, the riverine sand islands formed through sedimentation on the Ganges River. © Elisa T. Bertuzzo 2013.

A correlated and no less critical development on a global scale is the fact that agricultural labour, which millions of people once relied and subsisted on, is becoming either obsolete or discontinuous, or appallingly unrewarding (Shiva et al. 2000), whereas automation and digitalisation are having adverse effects on the creation of industrial and tertiary jobs. [5] In cities and the countryside alike, those who lose employment and those who in earlier times would have constituted the surplus population, cannot even hope to find temporary jobs (let alone permanent contracts) in one and the same place. To summarise these concomitant and highly complex processes of expansion, expulsion and exhaustion: the ‘elasticity’ that many still ascribe to capitalism is slowly but surely coming to an end. In other words, people no longer commute according to an unequivocal country–city course, they do not simply move to cities (causing their ‘uncontrolled growth’, as many policymakers like repeating), as an ‘elastic’ economy would require. Today, more and more of us live translocally: shifting between multitudinous worksites and, partly, also jobs, leaving our homes repeatedly to return after varying periods of time, inhabiting many social spaces (or none).

The direct consequences and local variations of this phenomenon should be a subject of dedicated empirical studies; the transformations that await us once the constancy of such shifts and the tendency of growing numbers of the expelled to commute over ever greater distances, facilitated by improved communications, lead to their movements being more and more ‘loose’, in turn, can only be the subject of theoretical speculation for the time being.

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Enamul alternates phases of agricultural work in his village to extensive stays in the more than 200km away capital city of Dhaka, where he earns a life by pulling a cycle-rickshaw. Graphic: Boris Murnig © Elisa T. Bertuzzo 2015.

I have called this new and still ambiguous class people-on-the-move and this adaptation process, over the course of which people’s relations to given localities and ways of (in)habitation, their understandings of presence and absence and representations of ‘home’, ‘foreignness’ etc. are changing in order to support lives on the move, the translocalisation of everyday life (Bertuzzo 2019). It has far reaching implications, among them its direct effect on the ways in which we represent space-time in general and, therefore, on the practice of mapping.

Embodying and temporalising maps

What is space-time? I use this term because I cannot conceive of space as a given, as a container in which different activities and actions ‘happen’. As Henri Lefebvre (1991) argued, such a notion of space is empirically and politically problematic in that it disregards the effects of time on space and in particular the fact that human beings transform social space with time, by creating new organisations and entering into negotiations or by intervening in certain spaces. Think of the malleability of spaces that are transformed almost hourly such as certain market areas, or of the fluctuating occupancy of city streets and squares, as well as residential quarters, over the course of the seasons. This nature of space as product of social interactions should neither be neglected in urban and regional studies, nor in the study of territories, since, throughout human history, social space has been changing along with relations of production, often through people’s struggle. Studying any kind of development in (social) space actually means studying space-time.

There is, however, a parallel reason for my insistence on this concept. Human beings continuously also produce representations of space, and ‘space-time’ reminds us of this much more directly than ‘space’. Representations of space are images, logics and explanations of spatial relations and relationships; they must receive critical attention because (as Lefebvre showed) they contribute towards the production of space at least as much as perceptions, physical acts, everyday life interactions and concerted struggle. While human beings produce and use them for orientation, they also risk being dominated by them, because ideologically forged representations tend to control and standardise the uses of space in everyday life (for example, providing access for some and excluding other groups), and because they determine most processes of territorialisation, beginning with the drawing of borders and ending with the construction of walls.

The latter notion of space-time has two implications for practices of mapping. Firstly, once we decide to focus on space-time we are forced to think about approaches that will allow for people’s perspectives, predetermined understandings and biases to speak from and through the map. Secondly, since the representations of space-time, much like everyday practices and social interactions, are also prone to change under the influence of augmented movement, we must be particularly considerate in reading maps that we derive from fieldwork with people-on-the-move. Mappings of seasonal transfers, sites touched by commuters, distances covered or speeds reached, for example, will not suffice to document and understand their space-time(s). The experiences from my fieldwork with circular, seasonal and temporary migrants in Bangladesh and the Indian states of West Bengal and Kerala, resonated with what the romance philologist Ottmar Ette contended talking about ‘literatures without a fixed abode’. Ette writes that

mobile dynamics emerge from behind the doubled locales, places, and spaces. These dynamics transform fixed structures anew and turn them into the kind of open, arrow-like structures that I call vectorised or vectoral. A mobile system of coordinates is sketched out in the memoir, one in which past experience creates places, where spaces grow out of movement, where the past grows out of having been lived and the present out of the process of becoming future. They form a mobile network in which … the movements in and of the past cannot be separated from the movements in and of the future… The vectorisation, the storing of old (and even future) patterns of movement that resurface in present movements, there to be experienced anew, goes far beyond individual experience in the past and future. Vectorisation encompasses an area of collective history whose patterns of movement it stores in a post-Euclidean field of discontinuous and multiply refracted vectors. (Ette 2016: 3)

This vectorisation of space, then, is an effect of translocalisation. If, as suggested by Ette, the task of literature in a translocalised age is to provide storage for vectorised structures which hold past, present and future space-times within themselves, what role can ethnography and mapping play? In the fieldwork, I relied on the ‘work of memory’ triggered by conversations (in contrast to interviews, especially structured ones) and a variety of experiments with mental maps (Lynch 1960). One common experience was that the persons I involved merged past, present as well as future representations in their accounts and illustrations. According to Henri Bergson (1889/1970), the only way to deal with movement is by focusing on its bodily perception, and this observation eventually led to the second element of my fieldwork, which (in addition to data collection) strongly relied on the examination of the effects of movement on the bodies of people-on-the-move.

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Every morning at 3am, Badal commutes to Kolkata by train to sell his flowers at the city’s central flower market; he returns on the 9 or 10am train and dedicates the rest of the day to the cultivation. His “experience of the region” is strongly determined, and undermined, by this physically highly demanding routine. © Elisa T. Bertuzzo 2013.

There is wide agreement on the fact that Bergson’s stance backed Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s assertion that the movement of a stone ‘is’ the stone moving—in other words, that one can make sense of movement only from one’s own perspective in relation to a moving object (Merleau-Ponty 1976). For me, this translated into a decision to follow people-on-the-move through all phases and stages of their journeys, on the one hand, and to abandon the idea that my work was an individual and solitary endeavour, on the other. The process of mapping was thus ‘collectivised’: in addition to the exercises in mental mapping, I tried to involve all persons in discussions about the regions they travelled in, the territory and its representations in commercial maps and academic cartographies, as well as my own sketches. Through this, our regional knowledge, wisdom, images, prejudices and fears slowly converged. Every time the participants started to speak of our or even their map (rather than of my map) and, similarly, whenever they studied our movements on my GPS device or reminded me to check the battery status on my audio recorder, I thought I was approximating a relational understanding of movement. Such encounters and the frictions they sometimes produced—for example, when the respective perceptions of a covered distance differed starkly, or when here- and there-connotations became blurry and interchanged as the journey progressed—influenced my choices and decisions regarding the mapping strategy I ought to follow. [6]

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Overview of the undertaken journeys in India and Bangladesh. Graphic: Hans Hortig © Elisa T. Bertuzzo 2019.

The relativity of geographic distances in the perception of people-on-the-move

It would then follow that the term ‘maps on the move’ does not refer to physical artefacts or printed maps to carry along on a journey: they are, more radically, representations of a vectorised space-time, constantly produced, reproduced, reshaped and adjusted by translocal people. In the field, whatever I came up with was mainly achieved through bypassing or accepting various obstacles and reacting to highly ephemeral social circumstances, which changed as soon and as often as the actors changed. For example, one of my research questions concerned the ways in which regions and landscapes are perceived while moving. Therefore, I had planned to involve people-on-the-move in pertinent conversations during the journeys. This, however, soon proved to be nonviable because the means of transportation we mostly used were highly crowded and often risky. In the meantime, I was collecting ‘mental maps’, which I intended to analyse in order to shed light on issues such as territorial belonging, spatial references, orientation and regional knowledge. To my surprise, during the drawing sessions (which regularly gave rise to extensive storytelling) the participants repeatedly mentioned characteristics of the landscape as they knew or remembered it from passing by, leading to the realisation that ‘mental maps’ could also be used to investigate the perception of landscape in movement.

Months later, the same maps became a source of further insight. Throughout the fieldwork, I recorded my movements using a GPS device in order to make the data available to a team of cartographers and designers that assisted my research from Berlin. During one of our work sessions, someone had the idea to juxtapose the ‘mental maps’ and the digitally produced cartographic representations of the journeys. The discrepancies and correspondences that thereby became evident spoke to how the perception of territories is directly affected by the time needed to move through them. [7] It is well known that when drawing ‘mental maps’, we generally mirror the speed of movement from A to B rather than the actual distance (Lynch 1972). However, in my previous research (Bertuzzo 2009) into the representations of space by inhabitants who were more or less permanently settled in Dhaka, the role of time had not been so prominent, and I interpreted this as a result of the specific experience of—vectorised—space-time made by people-on-the-move. They, to a much higher extent than urban dwellers, need to develop solutions contingently, according to constantly varying travel options and fluctuating work, as well as retribution: a well tuned travel plan, an early arrival or the ability to anticipate the end of the agricultural season could make all the difference; on the other hand, a delayed monsoon, a particularly tenacious fog or a railway strike could cause severe losses.

The map reproduced here is a good example of this:

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When I asked Badal to reconstruct the space-time of his daily commute to Kolkata—a three-hour journey starting at 2 a.m., followed by three and a half hours selling his home-grown flowers at the city’s iconic flower market, and then a return journey at 9.30 a.m.—he started by drawing his house, his bicycle ride from Keshapat to the railway station (Panskura), and the railway track to Howrah Station. He noted that the ride to the station had become somewhat faster after the road had been paved. If we now compare his route from home to the station with that of the train journey, the first would seem to be almost half as long as the second: in fact, it is only about six kilometres long, against the seventy-kilometre-long trip to the city.

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To understand why the length might be secondary for Badal’s drawing, I had to consider the modalities and circumstances of his commuting: his journey from home to the station is a 40-minute trip on a bicycle loaded with as much as 50 kilograms of flowers, whereas the train journey generally takes 1 hour 45 minutes, during which he mostly sleeps. The sparse lines which give the drawing the appearance of a musical score are not important railway stations on the route, but bridges and flower markets. This also reflects a perception of space which is specific to the region: in a landscape crisscrossed by huge rivers and prone to seasonal floods, bridges are crucial and often very characteristic landmarks, that occasionally become overstrained or unusable; on the other hand, the flower markets represented on the map were markets at which Badal would stop and sell whenever his train was delayed or affected by accidents or floods.

‘Mental maps’ like this sustain the ‘fluid’ relationship which people-on-the-move have with places, not as fixed points within a defined topography, but as elements of movable configurations embedded in memory, that is, in an embodied experience of movement. These maps also sustain a relationship with territory which is often explicitly, although individually, ‘oriented’: by overlapping Badal’s map and a satellite image of the area through which he commutes, for example, I realised that he did not place the north at the top, but at the bottom of the sheet. I observed the same effect in Milton’s ‘mental map’

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Working as a vegetable carrier in his youth, Milton had travelled all over Bangladesh on trucks, pick-ups and buses. When I asked him to draw a map on the basis of his memory of those days, he—although he had never seen a map of his country—produced one of almost perfect correspondence, albeit with the south at the top and the north at the bottom. It was as if for both Milton and Badal, the ocean (which constitutes the southern edge of Bangladesh and West Bengal) must be ‘up’, where the land ends, and the horizon broadens.

Maps as narratives

I would now like to assess the implications of what is called the ‘narrative’ element of maps. In The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de Certeau (1988) writes that the function of maps until the Middle Ages was not to locate places or demarcate borders, but to narrate. Like backdrops, they helped traveller-storytellers represent and retell events which had occurred during their journeys. In contemporary jargon, I might say maps are ‘logs’ of itineraries, but I prefer ‘backdrop’ for it also conveys their high specificity as stories: differently from most narrations, maps rely on visual correlations and not on logical concatenation. In other words, the act of seeing, additionally or in parallel to that of storytelling, is constitutive to both mapping and to looking at maps—where the verb ‘look at’ deliberately replaces the more common expression ‘to read’ maps. Acknowledging this, de Certeau notes that, when we draw a map or explain one to others, we often close our eyes to ‘visualise’ the locality we wish to draw.

The connection between stories and maps has been obvious to me since I carried out my first research in Dhaka. When I asked people to draw a map of the city, most of them almost automatically started telling me about the past appearance of their neighbourhoods or streets, recounted historical events which had occurred in certain areas and narrated their personal (past and current) experiences in given localities. During the research on translocalisation, I was reminded of this by Kartik’s mental map. [8]

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Kartik works as a carpenter at a state company in downtown Kolkata; when during the lunch break I asked him whether he could draw his travel routine, he cautiously led us away from the road and into the reception room. Seeing that we were dealing with sheets of paper, the watchman did not dare enquire what we were doing as he had done on previous occasions—and in fact, he keenly followed the conversation we sparked immediately thereafter. While creating his ‘mental map’, which took over one hour, Kartik not only told us about the corrupt panchayat [9] officers who embezzled funds for public works in the village, about the communal swimming pool which had been funded with donations made by the inhabitants, or about the new potato storage unit sponsored by the central government. He also took us on a ride to the district of Barddhaman along the newly built Cord Line railway, dwelled on the many rituals which require water from the Ganges River (which he regularly collected from a ghat in front of Howrah station on behalf of neighbours) and reconstructed the stories and legends of some of the most representative monuments and buildings that lined his daily route from Howrah Station to downtown Kolkata.

The narrative nature of maps invites fictional or imaginative adaptations as well as performative interpretations, which have in recent decades been noticed and realised by a range of artists, including Yoko Ono and Alexander Kluge, as well as by activists (Obrist 2014; kollektiv orangotango+ 2018). In many of the mapping exercises I initiated, participants blended into their stories and drawings information which provided important and at times moving insights into what they wished or imagined their environment to be; an almost Lefebvrian désir transpired. For example, in her ‘mental map’ of Dhaka:

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Farah, a writer and researcher, transformed the urban space into a lively series of events, promises of adventure and ironical comments. At the time of our conversations she used to embark on daily drives from her home in Baridhara to a private hospital in Dhanmondi for medical treatment. When the traffic was heavy, it took more than two hours to cover the distance of about 11 kilometres and she, taking advantage of the luxury of having a driver, used this time to think and look for spots that stimulated her imagination. Indeed, she was able to give me vivid and very personal renderings of a city which she experienced almost exclusively from inside a car.

To produce her map, Farah she indulged in sharing opinions and criticism. Among others, the commercial billboards hanging along one of Dhaka’s most intensely used flyovers led her to rant about the country’s uneven economic growth; the comment on the parliament’s garden (‘Gardens! But do not play here’) conveyed frustration about Bangladesh’s struggling democracy; and the representation of the Grameen Bank and the UN headquarters, as proximate to one another might well reflect the hegemonic role played by these institutions in the country (Roy 2010). Farah’s opinion about their performance was quite easy to guess from the tag attached to the ‘slums’ drawn alongside the UN building, where she had worked in the past: ‘reality check’. On the other hand, with its recurring indications of trees, gardens and lakes, this ‘mental map’ also expresses love and a deep nostalgia for lost natural spaces in a city whose growth has caused immense damages to the environment. ‘The car gets stuck and I feel that anything can give a good reason to look at anybody. We Bengalis are emotional, sentimental people, we almost enjoy romantic sadness. This actually saves the city!’

The “motional turn” and its call on mapping

The hypothesis or virtuality I discussed in this essay is that, in a time of augmented mobility pushed and pulled by expansion, expulsion and exhaustion, when everyday practice and the production of space are increasingly determined by movement, society undergoes a complete translocalisation. Such a process is visibly blurring the classic directions of migration (for example, rural–urban) and, in territorial terms, involves the disappearance of fixed centralities; for academic discourse and practice, especially those of migration and urban studies, it creates the necessity to rethink and adjust basic assumptions and empirical tools, whereby we might conceive of a full-fledged motional turn (Bertuzzo 2012). My reflection about this process and its implications took off from fieldwork in West Bengal, Kerala and Bangladesh, where I followed translocal persons who—under more extreme conditions than those witnessed in EuroAmerican contexts, but for reasons linked to a common, underlying process of expulsion—adapted their livelihoods in order to be as (efficiently) mobile as possible, whereby their lives on the move clearly influenced their space-time representations.

In order to study this progressive adaptation with the help of mapping, it is important to temporalise the maps by integrating time into new cartographies. A task I inferred from ‘mental maps’ in general and from those of people-on-the-move in particular entailed learning to reinterpret maps as narratives: narratives in which new and old space-time representations are negotiated. Another essential lesson I drew from my mapping experiments with people-on-the-move—especially from mapping-storytellings such as Kartik’s—is, finally, that mapping is more important than maps.
That is, we ought to record and foreground the explanations, values and wisdom expressed by participants while mapping, rather than considering only the final product of their exercises. If space-time is increasingly perceived, experienced and represented from the perspective of movement; if localities and locations can be constantly changed (except for the ‘home place’, which, at least in my experience, consistently represented the starting point of every mapping exercise) and indeed become ‘movable’ for people who constantly move about for a livelihood; and if all this mobility puts human beings’ chances and abilities to appropriate, shape and produce social space in jeopardy, then their ideas, everyday life experiences and desires, expressed in the course of conversations and mapping exercises, play an ever greater role towards asserting that this vectorised space-time has plural faces, is easy to manipulate, and thus is also more changeable than some may be able to realise.

The fact that space-time representations are plural implies there can be no universal and pre-established modus operandi for mapping, but only many ways of mapping. Some might say that I overestimate ‘mental maps’, that scattered drawings cannot compete with maps which contain precise geographic information. As I mentioned, the visual and ‘synthesising’ nature of maps makes them, in fact, extremely powerful: like paintings or photographs, all maps (however generated) are appreciated in a cognitive process which considers the whole picture at once—that is, the viewer correlates simultaneously each piece of information, each line and curve that compose them. Exactly due to this do we recognise at a single glance that the map of Bangladesh produced using sophisticated technologies and the map drawn by Milton with nothing but a pencil represent the same entity.

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Artistic interpretation of a participant’s mental map by artist Sambaran Das © Elisa T. Bertuzzo 2019.

Moreover, in a time when the idea of a ‘fixed’ geographical space is increasingly challenged by augmented movement and the instability characteristic of such a situation leads many to demand for clearer borders and new walls, I do believe that confronting official and ‘scientific’ representations of space with the most divergent, even most ambiguous, renderings of vectorised space-time, is an act of resistance against domination. With the help of imagination, and desire, these can be useful to change space.


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↬ Elisa T. Bertuzzo